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When severe weather comms get you a “hug” from the public

Heatwaves, storms, snow, and other extreme weather events can disrupt vital public services, make vulnerable people even more vulnerable, and put communities in precarious situations.

One thing is for sure. When unusual events occur, citizens, businesses, and the media turn to the public sector as a voice of authority, in search of information. And that need for new information is insatiable. You’ve got to feed it.

Information voids can breed fear and uncertainty

In emergency or crisis situations – including severe weather events – information voids can breed confusion, uncertainty and fear. In the absence of reliable and regular updates on a situation (and clear advice for the public), fake news has a chance to proliferate and public services leave themselves open to “trial by Twitter” – especially when they’re seen as not doing “enough” or anything at all. A lack of “leadership” and clarity can also lead to further damage and the impediment of recovery action, so it’s vital public sector teams have the tools they need to communicate effectively and reach the right people quickly.

We – humans – rely on up-to-date information to help us understand the facts, make sensible decisions, and take appropriate action. By putting a stake in the ground as soon as possible (e.g. when a situation is forecast or emerging) to let the public know that “you know” and “this is where people can get updates and guidance on the situation”, you establish your service / organisation as a trusted and reassuring voice.

Good practice example: City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council

For example when the UK experienced its coldest weather in years in Feb-March 2018, Bradford Metropolitan District Council was swift to establish lines of communication with the public and maximise the opportunity of increased web traffic (its highest yet, to be precise). They leveraged email bulletins, social media, their website, internal communication channels, the media, and front-line staff to warn and inform communities about the snow storm and the impact on services.

Not only did the regular information satisfy the public’s natural curiosity during the extraordinary circumstances (top priority as always: “What’s happening with the bin collections?”), the updates signposted people to important support services and encouraged them to take actions that would help others. For example one of the key outcomes of Bradford’s proactive multi-channel outreach during the extreme weather was an increase in referrals for temporary accommodation for rough sleepers.

More than twice as many rough sleepers were housed during the worst week of snow as during a “normal” cold night.

Using the GovDelivery Communications Cloud by Granicus, Bradford quickly built an audience to their “Extreme Weather” email alert, attracting 6.2k new subscriptions to this topic in one week, and 1500% more subscriptions to the council’s suite of email updates than in a “normal” week. Albert Freeman, Marketing and Communications Officer, explained: “In a week we had 16k new subscriptions to topics across our whole account and at one point I found myself transfixed watching the subscriber numbers go up by the minute”.

“The daily emails we sent during that period included the latest information about delayed bin collections and other council service disruptions, gritting, advice on helping vulnerable people, and photos of staff or other local people working hard to help others. Those emails had an average open rate of 68%, compared to an account average of 38% this year to date”. – Albert Freeman.

Community morale, resilience and feedback

Albert and team diligently cross-promoted the “Extreme Weather” email update on social media to reach new audiences, drive up subscriptions, and bring people to the website which was kept rich with up-to-date information. Albert shared that, “Our general rule on Facebook is that less is more, but during extreme weather, it does seem that people, and the Facebook algorithm, forgive more posts. If reactions, comments and shares are what the updated algorithm rewards, we nailed it that week. We had over 10k reactions, comments and shares during the week beginning 26 February, more than 12 times the engagement of the previous week”.

Some members of the public even felt compelled to share positive feedback on the council’s action plan.

Kersten England, Chief Executive of Bradford Council explained the council’s role in helping to build community resilience: “Keeping everyone in the loop with as much up to date information as possible is a top priority in these extreme weather events. We’re using a much wider range of channels to do so now – social media, email, broadcast, print and face to face all have a part to play. It’s clear people feel better supported, much more in control and able to play their part in their and the communities’ resilience as a result.”

Learn more from Bradford’s approach

To read the full story of Bradford Council’s severe weather communications plan, please download this success story.

Albert Freeman will be sharing more insights from Bradford Council’s communications strategy at the Leeds Digital Engagement Day on 19 June 2018.